This past summer, my son and I were leaving the local swimming pool. As we left, I saw a group of teenaged boys sitting on a low wall. I got a bad feeling. I held my little boy’s hand tightly as we walked past them. At that moment, the leader ching chonged us and his friends started laughing.
Within a few seconds, all kinds of thoughts flashed through my head: Being called a chink by middle school kids when I was a kindergartner. Being called a “chink bitch” and shoved onto a muddy sidewalk by older boys who were hall monitors at my elementary school. Being called a dirty chink by a much older girl in my gymnastics class who would threaten to beat me up.
But the thought that was most vivid was one of my father, who was waiting for me outside our local library. There was a little boy sitting nervously on his bicycle as my dad talked to him. The boy had called my father a chink, and my father was calmly explaining that it wasn’t a nice thing to say, and that his parents would be disappointed to hear him say that to an adult. (Who’re we kidding? We all know that this kid probably learned to be a racist at home. But my father was giving him the benefit of the doubt.)
The boy apologized and said he wouldn’t do it again. As he pedaled off on his bicycle, he turned around and screamed, “You fucking chink! Go back to your fucking country! I hate you! I hope all you chinks die!”
I was livid and embarrassed for my father and, to a lesser extent, for myself. I couldn’t believe that anyone would say that to a grownup, much less to my dad. We couldn’t even say the word “hate” in our household. My father just smiled and said, “I feel sorry for him. He has to live with all that anger. He’s not a very smart boy.” And then we went home.
So, now here I am, being ching chonged at about the same age my father was, and I’m feeling a combination of fear, anger, embarrassment and surprise. I could keep on walking or confront the kids. During that moment of hesitation, my four-year-old son asked me, “Why are they saying that to us?”
I turned around, walked back to where they were sitting and still laughing. To the leader, I said, “Fuck you. Watch your mouth. You’ve got ethnic friends.” They all stopped laughing and looked a little stunned. And frightened. I’m not sure if they were shocked that I spoke English, or that I had just sworn at them. It didn’t matter. Pointing to his friends—two of whom were Hispanic—I said, “If he’s saying this to me, what do you think he’s saying behind your backs?”
And, to my surprise, the kid apologized.
As my son and I walked to the parking lot, I turned around a few times to make sure they weren’t following us. I was half expecting them to start laughing and make more nonsensical noises at us. But they remained mute, with their heads hung down low. If I had to do it all over again, I would not have dropped the F bomb in front of children. I’m not proud of that particular word choice.
My mother tells me that things will be better for my son when he goes to elementary school, because there’s more diversity, compared to my childhood days. And, she points out that none of us were subjected to prejudice when we were growing up. She never knew what happened at school, because I never told her. It wasn’t until recently that I said that we did face prejudice. Not every day, but certainly enough days so that we’d remember them.
Last year around this time, I wrote a story about Jeremy Lin and what he means to Asian Americans in general and to my son in particular. After the piece ran in the Chicago Tribune, there were numerous comments alleging that I had made things up or exaggerated, or that they had an Asian friend when they were in school and never saw any of the things I had described. (You may read the archived comments on my website, as well as the Trib’s website.)
Just because you didn’t see it, that doesn’t mean it never happened.
© 2013 Jae-Ha Kim